A wild slim alien


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The visitors’ book: Fernando Pessoa, Bernardo Soares and The book of disquiet

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‘Everything depends on what we are and, in the diversity of time, how those who come after us perceive the world will depend on how intensely we have imagined it, that is, on how intensely we, fantasy and flesh made one, have truly been it. … We are all novelists and we narrate what we see because, like everything else, seeing is a complex matter.’

Sometimes it requires many more people than the author to make a book. Take the Serpent’s Tail edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The book of disquiet. It’s a version of the text edited by Maria José de Lancastre and translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Three earlier Pessoa scholars undertook the original work of deciphering the handwritten notebooks and scraps of paper from which the text was derived and put into some sort of order. Then there’s the infrastructure a publisher requires to put a book in the line of sight of potential readers – the commissioning and copy editors, the marketing and administrative staff, not to mention those responsible for its look and feel, like the graphic designer. And (assuming we are not talking about a solely virtual edition) let’s not forget the printer, who brings the book into physical being. It’s not often that we think of these last two roles as having an equivalence to the intellectual effort of editor or translator. But with the Half Pint Press’ boxed, letterpress edition of The book of disquiet, I think it’s only fair that we elevate Tim Hopkins to the level of de Lancastre and Jull Costa, despite (knowing Tim) his inevitable protestations as we try to do so.

Pessoa began writing what has come to be known as The book of disquiet in 1912, and continued adding to it fragment by fragment until his death in 1935. Tim has spent very nearly as long bringing his singular vision and version of the text into being, printing a selection of the individual portions of Pessoa’s words on paper ephemera – a roll of bus tickets, a portion of a map, a menu, pages from a ledger, gift tags, raffle tickets, a playing card, a postage stamp – but also on a variety of other materials which can take ink – a photographic slide, a book of matches, a wooden tongue depressor, a drinks mat, pieces of cloth and jigsaw puzzle, and even along the sides of a pencil. It’s been a labour of love, in the truest sense, just as Pessoa’s writing of his texts was in the first place, seemingly without hope of them ever being published. This artful and soulful recreation of the trunk in which the fragments of writing that form The book of disquiet were found brings alive both the ordinariness of the imagined life lived by Bernardo Soares, and Pessoa’s extraordinary rendering of his interior. If you add to this the extensive ferreting about which has taken place to source materials in sufficient quantities; the sheer variety of those materials; the ingenuity with which the individual printing challenges have been met; and the bloody-minded determination to keep going, strike by laborious strike of the manual press – I am as in awe of it as I am of Pessoa’s sentences. And what Tim’s efforts inevitably lead us back to are those.

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In one of the several hundred fragments of which The book of disquiet is comprised, Pessoa, writing in the guise of Soares, compares life to an inn in which he must stay until ‘the carriage from the abyss’ comes to pick him up. Soares says:

‘If what I leave written in the visitors’ book is one day read by others and entertains them on their journey, that’s fine. If no-one reads it or is entertained by it, that’s fine too.’

Any writer who is not widely read during the course of his or her lifetime might well need to think like this to be able to continue to believe in the effort of writing without a sense of the futility of that effort overwhelming and undoing them. But Pessoa’s subject was so often the futility of effort of any kind, and his writing about it so tenacious, that it becomes hard to believe it of him. Certain fragments towards the end of the Serpent’s Tail edition of The book of disquiet reveal that he was shrewd enough to guess that the trunk of texts and poems left behind when he finally caught the carriage to the abyss would sooner or later be discovered and disseminated. The visitors’ book was in fact a treasure chest of untold, unparalleled, gem-like literary fragments, and perhaps it was enough for Pessoa while he lived to know in both his heart, and in his astutely philosophical mind, that he was ahead of his time.

The translation by Margaret Jull Costa, one of at least four there have been into English, follows the thematic selection edited by Maria José de Lancastre, which while it promotes an element of repetition, makes the whole less random and unstructured. (Tim’s boxed version of the book reverses this process, which arguably makes it truer to what Pessoa had in mind himself: ‘I re-read some of the pages which, when put together, will make up my book of random impressions. And there rises from them, like a familiar smell, an arid sense of monotony.’) Themes – such as tedium, weariness, office life, solitude, dreams, love, writing – do recur and overlap, but there is more of a sense of accumulation than repetition as over the years Pessoa/Soares writes his way into and through these themes from ever-varying angles.

If you gauge a book by a desire to annotate the text or capture and save quotes from it, then The book of disquiet has few equals. When I read it, I find that the quotableness varies only according to my own receptivity and sensitivity. On a day when my mind has a greater or lesser number of cares which are distracting it, then Pessoa’s sentences can drift by me as light and free – or as insubstantial – as blown bubbles, evaporating with a silent pop almost before I’ve finished reading them. But on a day when I am, say, luxuriating in the bath, and the doors and windows of the inner apartment of my relaxed mind are fully open, then the words I read in my well-thumbed and wrinkled copy of The book of disquiet blow through that apartment like a freshening breeze, and I find myself wanting to capture between quote marks nearly every sentence he writes. Here are just a few of those:

‘Each of us is intoxicated by different things. There’s intoxication enough for me in just living. Drunk on feeling I drift but never stray. If it’s time to go back to work, I go to the office just like everyone else. If not, I go down to the river to stare at the waters, again just like everyone else. I’m just the same. But behind this sameness, I secretly scatter my personal firmament with stars and therein create my own infinity.’

‘Down the steps of my dreams and my weariness, descend from your unreality, descend and be my substitute for the world.’

‘One should abandon all duties, even those not demanded of us, reject all cosy hearths, even those that are not our own, live on what is vague and vestigial, amongst the extravagant purples of madness and the false lace of imagined majesties… To be something that does not feel the weight of the rain outside, or the pain of inner emptiness… To wander with no soul, no thoughts, just pure impersonal sensation, along winding mountain roads, through valleys hidden amongst steep hills, distant, absorbed, ill-fated… To lose oneself in landscapes like paintings. To be nothing in distance and in colours…’

‘The sentence was the only truth. Once the sentence was formed everything was done; the rest was the sand it always had been.’

‘I’m like a being from another existence who passes, endlessly curious, through this one to which I am in every way alien. A sheet of glass stands between it and me. I always try to keep that glass as clean as possible so I can examine this other existence without smudges or smears spoiling my view; but I choose to keep that glass between us.’

‘What is there in all this but myself? Ah, but in that and only that lies tedium. It’s the fact that in all this – sky, earth, world – there is never anything but myself!’

Sometimes when you read a fragment, it is true that you feel yourself succumbing to the same kind of tedium that Pessoa/Soares is describing – but then he hits you with a turn of phrase so beautifully crafted and so lucid in its perceptiveness that it leaves you as stunned as if the sun had suddenly penetrated a thick blanket of grey-white cloud.

I suspect many writers feel the way that Bernardo Soares feels. The difference may be that they are waiting with a greater or lesser degree of confidence for the torpor to pass, or for the muse to sing, and the story to emerge from the song; from what is initially a fog of shapeless forms within their minds. Pessoa remains or chooses to remain in that foggy state, and makes the tedium, torpor and solitariness the story. In so doing, ‘using my soul as ink’, he performs the alchemical transformation of which Soares believes himself incapable.

‘These pages are the doodles of my intellectual unconsciousness of myself,’ he writes. If so, why should we bother to be interested? Because the end results are not mere doodles, they are finely wrought and rendered fragments of Pessoa’s thought, passed through the medium of Soares, and sitting on top of a bed of submerged feelings and dreams. The fragments are ahead of time reports on the state of our twenty-first century minds and souls, full of acuity and insight about our atomisation and the relationship we have with our own selves. By some hundred years, and through his use of heteronyms, of which Bernardo Soares is but one of seventy or eighty Pessoa used during the course of his writing life, he anticipates the taking of multiple online identities in order to present facets of one’s self to the world. Perhaps inevitably this comes at a cost; from Soares himself, we hear the plaintive cry of someone within whom multiple personalities have run wild:

‘Who is this person I attend on? How many people am I? Who is me? What is this gap that exists between me and myself?’

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Some writers – the best perhaps, though that’s not always recognised in their own time – are the advanced guard in terms of the evolution of how human beings think and feel. They report to us how they perceive the world, and allow those ways of perceiving to develop and take hold, until what once was strange and solitary becomes understood, a part of the collective consciousness. It pulls you up short when Pessoa himself addresses this notion directly. It’s as though he is present in the (bath)room with you in some ghostly way, beyond what has normally been the case as you read him:

‘One day, perhaps, they will understand that I carried out, as did no other, my inborn duty as interpreter of one particular period of our century; and when they do, they will write that I was misunderstood in my own time; they will write that, sadly, I lived surrounded by coldness and indifference, and that it is a pity it should have been so. And the person writing, in whatever future epoch he or she may live, will be as mystified by my equivalent in that future time as are those around me now.’

In writing about The book of disquiet, I’ve come to realise that it is next to impossible to sum it up concisely, in any satisfactory, meaningful way. There is too much going on in the Bernardo Soares compartment of Fernando Pessoa’s mind; it would require a book of similar length to the book itself to do it justice. And you would surely only want to read such a book after you have read Pessoa himself, and have had the chance to make up your own mind. Because your book of disquiet will not be my book of disquiet, or indeed, Tim Hopkins’, de Lancastre’s or Jull Costa’s. Any one reader will navigate through its mosaic of thoughts, feelings, ideas and dreams using a different route, and be struck along the way by differing sentences and paragraphs within those fragments. And yet at the end of the book, all those readers who have been beguiled into investing themselves in his sentences will have a strong, perhaps even fraternal sense of Fernando Pessoa; all will have discovered the Bernardo Soares in themselves.


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Gift of tongues #8: Quisquose

For five or six days now, he’s been tapping.  Ever since Carolyn put the tulips in a vase on the sill of the kitchen window.  Mistaking the purplish-red of the petals for berries, perhaps.  Or – but no.  It couldn’t be.

When she hears him tapping she rises from her desk in the study down the hallway and ventures to look at him, inching across the kitchen tiles so that she can better see the glint in his sideways-on eye, the space-hopper orange of his beak, the sootiness of his feathering.  He looks wise.  Masterful, even.  They stare at each other, the double panes of glass between them until a sudden gust of wind spooks the bird into taking cover within the laurel hedge which encloses the view from the window.  She leaves the kitchen with the vase of tulips and sets them on her desk.  But still the blackbird comes and taps, two or three times a day.

By the sixth morning, she has quietened and slowed her movements so much that the bird does not flinch even when she puts her fingertip to the glass.  She waits for him to tap his beak against it, but it’s still a shock when he does.  As she feels the glass vibrate against her finger, a feeling of exultation passes through her being.

Each night when Carolyn gets home from work, she steps out of the car and pauses there in the garage, poised between three worlds; the world in her head, and the worlds outside of it, the exterior of work and the interior of home.  The twilit sky is the void between the worlds.  She sees the lights of aircraft pass high across it, and follows the path of one for a while, before looking instead for the emerging patterns of the familiar constellations.  She wishes there was a moon she could wish upon, to transform the blackbird back into the man who is gone, for by now she is quite sure that it is his reincarnation.  Genie or none, tomorrow morning she will open the window, and let the blackbird back into her world.

Quisquose

A definition of ‘quisquose’


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Gift of tongues #7: Multifoiled

She dreamt of chocolate; she dreamt she was chocolate, wrapped in alternating layers of silver and gold foil till she could no longer move a muscle.  The man wrapping her pierced each successive layer at her mouth with his finger so that she could breathe, but otherwise she was entirely contained.  All she felt was a twitching inside of herself.  But that was a physical tic; her mind was at peace, wrapped tight as she was – she had been absolved of all responsibility.  The only thing to do was to wait, drifting on currents of aimless thought and a growing ache.  She was waiting for the man to break her, to snap the brittle parts of her body with the foil still on; slowly to unwrap the pieces of her, putting each in his mouth, feeling her dissolve upon his tongue.  From being tightly wrapped, rigid, she would be made molten, and hers would be a liquidity that he might mould in any way he chose.  She wanted only to be the shape he desired her to be.  While wrapped in silver and gold, while melting about him, she gave up her right to self-determination.  And yet in those endless moments, he was the more subservient – not so much to the greediness of his own desire, but to the fulfilment over and over again of this urgent need of hers, which could only be sated by the cyclical sequence of stilling, breaking, eating, and remoulding.  She was couverture, she was Callebaut.  She was ganache, she was fondant.  She was salted caramel.

Lucky then that the man of her dreams was a chocoholic.

Multifoiled


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Gift of tongues #6: Hitherto

The afternoon was wan.  The day had gradually lost its colour, as if all the light was being sucked out of the sky.  Hitherto, there had been the definite suggestion of spring, a mildness in the air which allowed long-hunched shoulders to release all their tension at last after a long, cold winter.  But now that daubing warmth from the paintbrush of the sun was as good as a distant memory, and once again he suspected he would remain forever trapped in a one hundred year-winter.

Hitherto


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Gift of tongues #5: Oomingmak

When he hears the call of the tawny owls loud and unmistakeable in the otherwise silent night, he thinks of how if they were Strix aluco, they might spend the nights hunting together, flying silently – ecstatically – on the wing to drop extended talons down on dormouse or vole or beetle, or even the plump succulence of a frog.  Across the woods they would call to each other, first the long note of his drawn out hoooouh, and then the tu-whit tu-whoo of her response.  Once each had its catch, they would return to the Scots pine roost to feast together.  Later there would be the press of feathers in an ivy-curtained hole in the pine’s trunk, and just enough room to preen each other until morning came.

Past midnight, as incapable of switching off his awareness of the night as any nocturnal animal, his thoughts reverberate like the owls’ duet.

Oomingmak


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Gift of tongues #4: Ribbed and veined

Inside, we are all ribbed and veined, but thin as he was and livid as he had been, you could see bones and wires on the outside of his frame.  There was barely an ounce of fat on him; fury had burned it all away, until, if you took up a pair of mallets, you might play him like a xylophone.  The superficial temporal vein stood out on his forehead.  Once he had been both of the words tattooed on the knuckles of either hand: HATE and LOVE.  Had you seen him at the height of his fury, you would have thought that he couldn’t possibly have become the lover that he was – soft fingers applied with both a gentle intensity and an attentiveness to the needs of the body and mind he was touching.  Instinctively he understood that the greatest pleasures lay in furnishing his lover’s erotic imagination while never forgetting to feed the emotional furnace of her heart.  Of course, his head and body were not the only parts of him which were ribbed and veined, thought it was not so much this soft cylinder rendered hard which brought his lover to her knees as the gifts he had already given her, the scene he had already set.  He was all ribs and veins, while she was all ribbed and vaulted tunnels in which a lover could secretly hide, and arterial warmth, in which he could bask.

Ribbed and veined


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Gift of tongues #3: Sugar hiccup

He was in love with the sound of her singultus.  By extension with her, but it was the hiccups which had initially drawn his attention to her every movement and mannerism.  Sugar’s diaphragm was susceptible to the slightest provocation.  From the first time he had heard her hiccup onwards, he had been charmed by the almost apologetic tone and timbre of her each and every involuntary emission.  Sitting at a neighbouring desk, he soon took it upon himself to make sure that throughout the working day, she was watered with sparkling rather than still.  A graceful creature, her hiccups were delicate flutters and birdlike chirps, relatively speaking.  Sugar guessed that her desk neighbour was soft on her.  Secretly pleased to have an admirer who seemed not to mind her hiccupping (in fact quite the opposite), she did nothing to discourage him.  Under the cover of his desk, he found himself aroused, and it was always a satisfaction – hiccup – when the next one came.  He would steal a sideways glance to see in profile her breast rise and fall and her Adam’s apple bob.  Then – it made his heart lurch – she would put her slender fingers to her lips, as if to steady herself against the reflex action’s gentle onslaught.

One day he had the idea to record the sound of her hiccuping on his phone.  Surreptitiously, of course.  Lying in bed that night with headphones on, he played back his recording, allowing it to loop.  He listened to the cycle endlessly: the explosion of her hic, the fall of her cup, the fluting laughter which often followed, her valiant attempts to swallow successive hiccups down.  He fell into step with her, and had never felt more intensely alive than when he managed to match his long-delayed ejaculation to hers.

Sugar hiccup


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Gift of tongues #2: Alas dies laughing

‘Woe is me’ was the phrase which most often passed his lips and it was for that reason that both his family and his friends had taken to calling him Alas instead of Alan.  Conversing with himself, his habitually woebegone side always wrestled the straight man he might otherwise have been to the ground, so it was inevitable that he too would begin to see himself as Alas.  The name stuck, inside and out.  It was only when on his deathbed that he truly saw the funny side.  There really had been nothing to moan or worry about, compared to this, the painful end of it all.  Alas died laughing.

Alas dies laughing


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Gift of tongues #1: Feathers-oar-blades

They cut into the mattress with a Stanley knife and then ripped the tear asunder with their bare hands.  Feathers puffed into the air, skeletal springs were exposed and the mattress would never feel the warmth of two bodies lie against its quilted surface again.  Under cover of darkness they slipped down the garden to the bank of the river and rowed away, their rucksacks heavy with the wads of money that they had found beneath the feathers, between the springs.  The gift of all travel was theirs at last, and with it the gift of all tongues.

Feathers-oar-blades


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The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master: on writing lipograms (an afterword to Missing letters)

The comical hotch-potch

I’ve just completed a series of stories called Missing letters. Together they make up an alphabet of lipograms, a lipogram being a piece of writing composed entirely without a particular letter (or group of letters). I’m relieved to have finished, and now that I have, I thought it might be interesting to write about the experience of writing lipograms.

While I was working on the first letter in the series, I came across an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he contended the following:

‘My work represents an active campaign against the values I dislike: sentimentality, weak narrative, overly lyrical prose, solipsism, self-indulgence, misogyny and other parochialisms, sterile game-playing, overt didacticism, moral simplicity, unnecessary difficulty, informational fetishes, and so on. Indeed, much of what might be called actual “influence” is negative: I don’t want to be like this writer or that writer.’

Obviously there are some items in that list that most if not all of us would sign up to, but others – well, ouch. I can’t help feeling Franzen is being more than a touch prescriptive about his approach to writing.  He himself is guilty of at least a couple of the items with that very statement, let alone the essay as a whole. I loved The corrections, but ‘negative’ is the word here. We all come to writing from different places with differing intentions, motives, and, yes, abilities. It’s not hard to imagine that Franzen has no truck with or time for the Oulipians. That’s authors like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, who provided themselves with constraints which inspired the works they then went on to create. Perec it was who wrote La Disparition entirely without the letter ‘e’; not the first lipogrammatic novel, but probably the most famous, along with Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby. Perec’s masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, written with a full complement of letters, has a complex set of structural constraints based on a chess knight’s tour around a 10 x 10 grid, the squares of which represent rooms in flats in a Parisian apartment block. What the constraint serves to render is a beautiful book full of very human stories, some simple and sorrowful, others humorously fantastical or extreme. Life A User’s Manual or Calvino’s Invisible cities are just two answers to Franzen’s reductive critique.

Perec thrived on the challenges he set himself. You can impose rules on yourself and deliver something which you might not have achieved in any other way. When Franzen dies and is honoured with a sinecure in literary heaven, perhaps he’ll seek out Perec to debate the issue. And Perec might well wave a Gauloise in his face and say that it’s not a trick for trick’s sake. Likewise, though my stories might have been written another way with a different set of rules or a complete set of twenty-six letters, the resulting fiction still has depth of meaning. Playing a game doesn’t necessarily make the way the work unfolds any less emotionally true.

Would my stories have been better for being written unencumbered? The point is that they might not exist but for the constraint. From the choice of title onwards, the constraint shaped the stories and the stories fought the constraint. There are scores of different ways of saying roughly the same thing, and each of them has its own nuances. You choose the nuance which most closely resembles the truth of the fiction you have in your head. The constraint has also served to make me think that much harder about how to avoid the ease and restraint of clichés.

While Perec was the background inspiration for these 27 pieces of mine (I wrote a second story for U, suggested to do so by how the first unfolded), the immediate inspiration came from being reminded of and reading a more recent novel, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea.  Forbiddingly subtitled ‘a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable’, in fact it is as whimsical as it is clever in following the troubles of islanders who successively lose the use of letters of the alphabet, as a result of the irrational authoritarianism of the island’s elders.  The islanders themselves battle back as flexibly as Dunn negotiates the ever-increasing constraint, and in so doing reinvents the English language:

‘Such a beguiling sight – your long auburn tresses falling as cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the table top, gathering in swirl upon your note paper – obscuring? framing? your toil.’

I can’t make such claims for myself, of course, but the commoner the letter, the more I found I had to bend the language, and come up with alternative ways of saying what I wanted to say, which often turned out to be better than the sentence I might otherwise have written. Each letter presented a different challenge. For some, conjunctions and definite articles were out; for others, participles and past tenses.  Every grammatical construct was at one point or another unavailable to me. But language, like water, can find a way around each obstacle it faces. And there is definitely a creative tension between the story-telling and the being one fork short of a full picnic set.

How Perec managed in the age before computers and word processors, I will never know. When I finished drafting a story, I habitually ran a ‘Find’ search on the letter which was supposed to be missing, only to discover there were often several and sometimes even tens of the little blighters highlighted in fluorescent yellow. S was the only story where none of the letter in question got through the net of my finished draft.  I guess it tends to stand out in a sentence.

Along the way, I had a wonderful comment from Lunar Camel Co., which got to the heart of what I was trying to do, and how I viewed the challenge:

‘I’m always interested to see, reading these, whether I’m aware of the missing letter — whether I’m noticing the writerly things you’re doing (not unlike tumbling) or whether I’m too caught up in the narrative to be conscious on that level. Often it’s a mixture of both, but I got too caught up in this one to think for a moment about who, what, wildcats, etc.’

The set of 27 is far from perfect. I only slowly realised that the lipograms were becoming predominantly fictional, and so a few are riddles or non-fiction, and maybe one of these days I’ll have another pass at those letters. Probably some of the narratives need a little more room to breathe, and perhaps if they were appearing in book form rather than here, they would get that.

To which letter would I direct you, if you wanted to sample one in particular? That’s hard. Ironically the last letter of the alphabet is possibly the best story, about a woman leaving a relationship as a result of an ant invasion – but that too would not have come into being but for the suggestion of the missing letter.  Combining Perec and Calvino in a two-headed Hydra for U – imagining first an alien poaching and eating her eggs in The reader [u] and then a talking horse in The horseshoe [u] – gave me most satisfaction and fun. On one occasion a single lipogram wasn’t enough to contain a character’s story so she returned in another – I [b]’s anthropologist is a lone survivor on another planet, until she meets her end in We [r]. Another memorialised a pub in my home town – The Cupola House [q] – which sadly burnt down last year. There was a lot of life, death and meaning in these stories.

But if you forced me to settle on just one, perhaps I would suggest the playful love story that is CK & U [F].  That’s what it all probably comes down to. That I am playing with letters, with words, for the sheer joy of it.  Perhaps it’s what I like to do most of all.  Jonathan Franzen too, I suspect.

And now? I’m not sure what the writing future holds in store. But I am certainly looking forward to being able to use the alphabet’s full range, without constantly double-checking myself for a letter which ought to be missing.

Image of Carington Bowles’ The comical hotch-potch, or the alphabet turn’d posture-master, 1782 via Granger Art on Demand.